Should Utah Pay $50 Bounty on Coyotes Killed in Controversial Competitions?

Many Utahns see November as a time to cast ballots for political candidates, rake leaves, rummage through leftover Halloween candy, and prepare to say thank you before the holiday season.

For some, it’s a time to shoot as many coyotes as possible in a single day.

Late fall marks the resumption of Utah’s wildlife-killing competitions, in which an unknown number of coyotes and other animals are shot by teams bent on capturing by the end of the day the largest number of dead “dogs” found on the stacked in the back of their pickups.

The organizers of the competitions present these competitions as a family-oriented public service, as they help remove a “nuisance” predator from the landscape that has been blamed for declining deer populations and livestock losses. But wildlife advocates see these events as abuses of the West’s wildlife heritage and senseless celebrations of cruelty and bloodlust.

“You are completely unethical. You do not achieve a management goal. They disrupt the ecosystem, they cause a lot of pain and suffering, and for one thing only, and that is the satisfaction of the participants,” said Kirk Robinson, executive director of the Western Wildlife Conservancy in Salt Lake City. “They often try to cover it up by taking part of the registration fees and giving them to a local charity.”

Competition organizers dispute Robinson’s characterization of the events, but two people contacted by The Salt Lake Tribune declined to discuss the competitions in detail.

“No matter what we say, it’s not going to change anyone’s mind or open anyone’s eyes,” said Trent Wilson, who officiated the 2nd Annual Castle Country Coyote Classic, held on November 19 near Price. “It’s better for us to just do our own thing and not be in the public eye.”

A former promoter claimed competitions do no real harm.

“People like to go out and are already chasing coyotes. You’ll never end this. It’s a friendly competition. Are you going to get rid of fantasy football?” he said. “It’s no worse than [government contractors] flying planes to exterminate coyotes.”

He demanded that his name not be given and said he stopped organizing competitions after receiving death threats from animal rights activists.

Regardless of how Utahans feel about these contests, their tax dollars indirectly support them. That’s because a portion of the $50 bounties that the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) awards for dead coyotes are spent on animals killed in the competitions.

Per state policy, DWR cannot sponsor predator-killing contests or any similar activity that “may unethically depict the hunt, devalue the predator, or offend the general public.” Because coyotes are not protected wildlife, the competitions remain legal and coyotes killed in competitions can be redeemed for bounties, according to DWR spokeswoman Faith Heaton Jolley.

Officials acknowledge that DWR employees have been present at previous events, such as the 2018 Utah Coyote Derby in Spanish Fork, to process bounties and collect scalps. The agency’s involvement was not to facilitate the competitions, but to ensure that out-of-state coyotes are not turned in by contestants to collect Utah’s $50-a-head bounty.

“This has been an issue in the past as this particular event spans several other western states,” Jolley said in an email. “We don’t typically attend these events because we don’t endorse or endorse these types of competitions, but we wanted to protect taxpayers’ dollars by only making payments for eligible coyotes harvested in Utah.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Eight states have banned these competitions so far, but federal action has yet to catch on, according to Michelle Lute, conservation director of Project Coyote, a California-based nonprofit that promotes coexistence between human communities and predators.

“Unfortunately, this is still an uphill battle that we face, despite the fact that the public at large supports ending this practice because it is outrageous. It’s not scientifically based. There is no evidence that it benefits anyone. And it’s just for entertainment,” Lute said. “Most Americans, and most societies in general, feel that you have to have a good, justifiable reason to take a life. Entertainment or fun are not part of it.”

Competitors generally hunt in two-person teams and must set up their ranges and callers on public land. Increasingly, to prevent fraud, hunters must document the timing of their kills by using their cellphones to record a time-stamped video of them shaking the dead coyote before rigor mortis sets in.

A competition held in Hatch on November 5 awarded prizes not only for the most coyotes killed, but also for raccoons, foxes and rabbits.

The Bureau of Land Management and the US Forest Service almost always require permits for contests, races, and other public events held on public lands in Utah. Perhaps because coyote shooting teams are spread over wide areas and screenings take place on private property, wildlife competitions are generally not expected to receive permits from land management agencies.

Predatory competitions are also popular in Wyoming, Idaho, and Nevada, where coyotes are also considered agricultural pests without the protection afforded to other native mammals. These competitions are also not regulated or monitored.

State wildlife officials have no idea how many animals are being killed, what species, where and how they are being killed. Participants are not required to follow the rules governing big game and bird hunting, which ensure fair hunting, sustainable harvests and humane killings.

(Utah Coyote Hunters via Facebook) A screenshot from the Utah Coyote Hunters private Facebook group shows a member recently performing a coyote kill. The Tribune has removed the identities of the poster and the commentators.

The lack of rules is evident on coyote hunters’ social media, where they post photos of themselves in camouflage clothing with their weapons, often a tripod-mounted .223 caliber rifle, and the coyotes they killed in the field Trucks, even arranged to make political statements. In one post, hunters are posed with middle fingers outstretched and the carcasses linked to form the letters FJB in an apparently disapproving reference to the current White House occupant.

A predator contestant, a welder based in Malad, Idaho, posts his exploits on social media under the moniker Coyote Assassins, whose mission is “to go on a crusade to film as many coyotes as possible.” Her feed, which serves as an advertising platform for hunting gear manufacturers, includes videos of dogs tearing up coyotes.

“Apart from the rules governing hunting in general, competitions are not regulated or even prosecuted. Few of the regulations for deer apply to coyotes. They are an unprotected non-wild species,” said Roger Phillips, spokesman for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. “There is a question of legality and a question of ethics. Showing videos of coyotes being attacked by dogs falls outside the realm of ethics, but it could be legal since hunters are allowed to use dogs to hunt predators in Idaho.”

Proponents like Robinson claim that these types of displays give the hunt a black eye. Utah can begin to rectify this by banning competitions and abolishing the bounty program, he argued.

“Wildlife is a public foundation. Even though it’s not administered by the state, it still belongs to everyone,” said Robinson.

Robinson acknowledged that a non-competition clause is outside the purview of the Utah Wildlife Board, and he is now leading a campaign asking county commissions to pass non-binding resolutions against them.

“It might take a constitutional amendment or a change in state law to actually ban,” he said.

For his part, Wilson, the organizer of the Castle Country event on November 19, remains puzzled as to why such competitions would upset anyone.

“I don’t see why these should be so controversial, but fisherman derbies are not. The fish are better protected than coyotes,” Wilson said. “It doesn’t make sense to me and never will.” Should Utah Pay $50 Bounty on Coyotes Killed in Controversial Competitions?

Justin Scacco

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